Martin Jones; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; William BoughtonLyrita SRCD367

Piano Concerto

The role of the concerto in the twentieth century, once the concept of virtuosity had become outplayed, which one might date from the death of Rachmaninov in the 1940s, is an interesting one. By this stagethe virtuosity of performers was something assumed rather than being something that was necessarily the primary focus of a barnstorming musical work. Musical and structural integrity seem to have become much more significant, particularly to British composers; and one might date this a lot further back, to Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Joubert’s Piano Concerto certainly exhibits these characteristics in the most positive manner, possessed of a musical coherence that has stood the test of time well. In this respect the work sits alongside concertos of contemporaries such as William Mathias and, in some respects, Finzi’s concertante works. Newcomers to Joubert’s Piano Concerto will find it sits well as a follow-on from the Naxos disc of British Piano Concertos which includes works by Alec Rowleyan d others.

This Lyrita disc, with the solo part played with great clarity by Martin Jones, is a welcome opportunity to hear a well-paced piece where musical structure plots an emotional path which is stimulating and rewarding. In this respect, the work exemplifies Joubert’s aim as quoted in the sleeve notes: “communication is important to me. I want to be understood, enjoyed and used. I do not want to live in the enclosed and artificial world of “Contemporary Music”’. These thoughts may resonate with enthusiasts for Finzi’s music also.

The first movement is characterized by rhythmic insistence throughout, often in the form of repeated note figures, particularly a four-note motif whose rhythm informs most ideas in the movement. This well-knit thematic approach gives continuity and reassurance to anyone coming to the work for the first time. The structure of the movement essentially leads, emotionally, to a passage reminiscent of Rachmaninov which occurs around a third of the way through and recurs later. Both passages form effective climaxes in what is a well-proportioned structure which owes much to traditional sonata forms.

The second movement is characterized by effective chamber music scoring at the start, particularly attractive in its use of woodwind, especially the bassoon. The varied orchestral palette of colours is astrength of the work as a whole, providing much variety and interest. This second movement has a more philosophical, perhaps reflective feel after the driven first movement. Here, the climax comes midway through the movement, forming the most dissonant section of the work so far. Joubert gives brass and horns their head before the more reflective style returns. The movement ends with a brief look back at the more dissonant writing before the tranquil opening returns.

The final, third movement opens with cadenza-like flourishes from the piano focused on rapid repeated notes and trills, although this is untypical of the work as a whole, which eschews virtuosity for its own sake. An allegro ensues, where repeated-note ideas take centre-stage again. Here they are played mainly as a backdrop to piano passage work, and the ideas are, perhaps, less incisive rhythmically than those in earlier movements. Perhaps also, some of the imitative and sequential writing is a little predictable. There are, however, some interesting combinations and workings out of ideas mid-movement and a build-up of effective dissonances akin to the middle of the second movement. This is followed by some interesting betrayal of metrical expectations in interchanges between soloist and orchestra: the listener is not always sure where the regular pulse of earlier movements has gone. This enables a sense of climax to be achieved before the ideas of the movement’s slow opening recur, this time leading to a more substantial cadenza. Would it be wrong to hear a touch of Addinsell’sWarsaw Concerto in some of the repeated chords? None the less welcome for that, if a fair comparison! The repetitive rhythmic ideas close the concerto with rigorous brass flourishes ensuring a bravura finish to an entertaining and enjoyable work. The performance is engaging, with a forward, clear recording; just the occasional lack of unanimity in upper strings in their highest register might have been addressed.

Symphony No 3

If the role of the concerto as a form in the late twentieth century was by no means cut and dried, the same can be said with equal certainty of the role of the symphony. Composers used and use the term freely to describe a wide variety of musical concepts or forms. The intention to realise extra-musical ideas in symphonic musical form was not new, of course. In fact, the prototype, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, makes a fascinating point of reference for Joubert’s Third Symphony, composed as it was in the same Romantic white heat as inspired Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Those present at the concert performance of Joubert’s opera of the same name will recall the dramatic intensity of the composer’s setting and its easy lyricism within a modern idiom. This Symphony takes five orchestral interludes as its starting point, these discarded from the much longer version of the opera that Joubert pruned drastically for the concert performance. Taking pre-existing works out of their dramatic context to form an essentially abstract orchestral work is a bold move. Joubert’s essentially symphonic approach to writing his opera, where thematic ideas themselves and their development underpin the rationale for the opera’s structure, alongside obvious narrative sense, gives some coherence to the Symphony.

The first of the five movements has strong emotional intensity. Inevitably, in most English operas written post-1945 there are echoes of Britten’s Peter Grimes, particularly in the woodwind writing, and that is true here. This is no more of a criticism than saying one can hear echoes of Verdi in Puccini.Indeed, mention of Grimes inevitably brings focus on the idea of calling this a symphony rather than, say, FiveInterludes, given that these movements originally served a similar purpose to those of Britten’s Sea Interludes in that opera. Judgement on that aspect of the work has to wait until the end of the Symphony is reached. The combined lyricism and vivid orchestral colour in this opening, reflecting Jane’s experiences at LowoodSchool, create an unsettled mood. This is heightened in the opening of the second movement, with its bass clarinet which on first hearing reminded this listener that Mr Rochester refers to Jane at one point as anwicked fairy. Soon, however, the focus turns to a more vigorous mood with a prominent xylophone figure introducing tension which is picked up in the rhythmically insistent writing for full orchestra, a return to traits of the Piano Concerto. This xylophone idea proves a key linking motif throughout the symphony, reflecting as the CD booklet tells us, the character of the unseen Mrs Rochester, Bertha. Transitions of mood help to give these successive movements integrity, just as the role of the orchestral interludes in the opera from which the movements spring was to reflect foregoing, or pre-empt succeeding movements.

Thus the mood of the third movement reflects the urgency and uncertainty surrounding the interrupted marriage of Rochester and Jane in Thornfield Church.The fast music at the start gives way to more regular writing, but with insistent bass figures that sustain the initial energy. Some of the rhythmic ideas preceding the solo horn call are perhaps a little foursquare but rhythmic ingenuity returns in the second half of the movement, where one might regret that Joubert wasn’t taken up by the film industry, such is the sense of something dramatic happening. The climax to the movement re-introduces the xylophone idea in a compelling ending which also proves a significant moment in the structure of the Symphony as a whole.

The fourth movement reflects Jane’s stay with the Rivers family. As it opens one begins to feel a slightly episodic element in the structure of the movements, even though they are linked by recurring ideas sufficiently to give the Symphony coherence. Jane’s unsettled nature when staying with her distant cousins is well represented but, just as adaptors of the novel for television and film have found it hard to decide, and taken different views on, how to deal with this necessary but distracting episode, one longs to reach the climax of the symphony and of the story. The movement does distract the listener from this mood with a very effective piece of writing focused on two trumpets as the orchestra’ coherence appears to dissipate at the end of the movement.

The fifth movement opens with an introduction which clearly states that the denouement approaches. The xylophone lurks in the background and, indeed re-appears mid-movement, but it is overtaken by a forthright statement of the love of Rochester and Jane, complete with bells. Maybe a little simplistic harmonically as the culmination of the many interesting ideas contained in the previous movements?

And is it a symphony? The assertion of the CD sleeve notes that Joubert is ‘a master of long-term, symphonic planning’ is hyperbole that does the composer few favours in this context. Symphonically, the work is too episodic to justify that judgement, but it is a well-constructed piece, of integrity and considerable orchestral ingenuity. It also captures elements of the wonderful story that is Jane Eyre and the composer’s undoubted love for it, which he communicates for our enjoyment with passion. Which is, as he himself has stated (see above), his aim.

 

Martin Bussey